In the spring of 2011, a powerful storm system created a funnel cloud a mile wide, ravaging Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as well as spawning a series of similarly deadly tornadoes throughout the southeast, including one that spun through a small Virginia farming town in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains – the place where I grew up, and where, it seems, all my stories begin.
My childhood home was spared, but the dairy where my father and two generations before him worked as farmers was not. The farm’s silo, a monolith as reassuring in its immovability as the mountains on the horizon, had been reduced to a pile of wires and cinder block. The roof of one building was found a few fields over, and there were holes blown clear through the barns that once held calves I fed, and the cattle whose milk purchased the food that graced my family’s table.
Miraculously, a few old barns still stood, and from the wood of one battered building, my husband and I had a table made for our dining room. The rough, gray, weathered planks are smooth and honeyed now, but the nail holes remain; most likely, someone I loved held the hammer that made those marks.
In contrast, I purchased our kitchen table online, as cheaply as I possibly could, because I knew my children would destroy it. It’s held up pretty well, except for the part where it looks like my son, now no longer quite so much a baby, thought the table was food rather than whatever was on his plate. The tines of his fork have made a confetti of indentations there and tell a story all their own.
But it’s not just dining tables that tell stories.
In this, the sixth issue of Proximity, Mary Laura Philpott’s delightfully quirky essay, “Lobsterman,” features a series of desks while exploring the nuances of language and the sometimes surprising realization of others’ expectations. A cafeteria table conjured from a first grade memory sparked Richard Gilbert’s “Don’t Call Me Dick,” a moving essay about naming, adolescence, and coming in to one’s own, while eight-year-old Davis Goodrich takes us on a journey into his imagination at his art table in “Secret Weirdos,” a photo essay.
Shahe Mankerian offers a powerful collection of “Table Poems” here, featuring a variety of tables, Armenian coffee, and his mother, a deeply complex character. Fefa Whitman Myer reflects on the “Victory Garden” kept by her family during World War II, and the friendship that unfolded around a picnic blanket there.
In “My Body Knows,” Ellee Achten’s dramatic food allergies make for a stunning little piece of flash nonfiction, while Jenni Simmons reflects on the many forms communion takes, from sacred ritual to Southern supper in “A Strange and Common Meal.”
Curiosity and observation frame Annalise Mabe’s “The Spies” as an argument unfolds, and in “Hai La Masa,” our long-form selection for this issue, John Michael Flynn transports us to dining and drinking tables in picturesque Moldova.
I feel so grateful that I was able to be the editor for this issue, because, beyond the wonderful pieces featured here, I was able to read dozens of fascinating “table stories” that spanned the globe.
Our submissions for this quarter came from India, Russia, Italy, China and South Africa, just to name a few, and as different as each story was, and as different as each of these published here are, the themes of many resonate clearly regardless of nationality.
The tables in our lives are powerful symbols of want and plenty, connectedness and discordance, creativity and plain truth. Our common experiences shape the world we live in and the moments that make up the stories of our lives, handed down around tables of all shapes, sizes and tasks, from one generation to the next.
I hope you’ll find this issue as gratifying to read as I found it to edit, and that it might cause you to laugh out loud over a cup of coffee, spark a conversation at dinner, or send you to your own writing table, in search of just the right words.